CLAPIERS — Christmas may be just around the corner, but in Clapiers, an outlying village just across the ring road that encircles most of Montpellier’s bulging waistline, tis the season for… softball.
The days are short and the shadows long right now, but on this given Sunday in mid-December, the weather was actually picture perfect — for a quadruple header!, which is what the four clubs sharing two makeshift diamonds on opposite sides of a faux-grass football pitch were each expected to play.
That’s a whole lot of softball, but it’s also what the players — a mix of men and women, some clearly more experienced than others — signed up for. And in total there are only five such game days in the Winter Series, as the co-ed, 10-team competition is called.
Truth be told, most the games are actually played in autumn, which can be wet here in the south of France but doesn’t tend to be too cold, all things considered. Even by those standards, today’s conditions — 16 degrees Celsius (60 F), with a no wind and a deep blue sky — were particularly pleasant.
Pretty nice for taking photographs too, I must say.
Besides the hometown Clapiers-Jacou Rabbits, which actually have two squads in the competition, the other teams taking the field for this, the fourth and final date of the regular phase of the Winter Series, were the Montpellier Barracudas, the Beaucaire Chevaliers and the Perpignan Phénix.
All of them are part of the LOBSC (Ligue Occitanie de Baseball, Softball et Cricket), a regional league that organizes this particular Winter Series and also features teams from Béziers, Rodez, Léguevin and Toulouse. And in February, the whole lot will meet in Béziers for a fifth and final set of games to determine a champion.
As things stand right now, the top four teams in the competition are Clapiers, Montpellier, Béziers and Stade Toulousain, from Toulouse, though which of those has the pieces in place to take the title is anybody’s guess.
What I can say having watched some Winter Series action for an afternoon is that the atmosphere is friendly — I noticed the catcher of one team high-five an opposing player who’d just belted a home run — the uniforms are sharp, and the concession stand in Clapiers makes a REALLY good ham sandwich.
There’s also a competitive edge to the play, which makes sense given that some of the players really do know what they’re doing. Montpellier’s lineup, for example, features players like Carrie Pitcher, who also plays for the French women’s national team, and Mathis Guiraud, a member of the club’s D1 baseball squad.
But what caught my attention most about the Winter Series were all the players and teams I hadn’t previously heard of. Learning about baseball and softball in France is, I’m realizing, a little like opening one of those Russian dolls and discovering another doll inside, and then another inside that one, and so on and so forth.
People I’ve talked to here describe baseball and softball as being confidentiel, which is more accurate, I’m realizing, than saying that the sports are “not very well known” or “largely unheard of.”
That’s because while baseball and softball don’t, obviously, have the following or stature of football, tennis or even basketball, they do have a niche here, and to a degree that I’m still coming to appreciate.
France’s semi-professional baseball league, the D1, features 12 teams spread all around the country. But each of those teams represents a club that also has youth teams, softball teams, co-ed teams, even teams for handicapped players. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because there are clubs upon clubs — like the Clapiers Rabbits and Perpignan Phénix — that aren’t in the D1 (for hardball, at least) but also offer baseball and softball opportunities galore.
The fact of the matter is that baseball and softball clubs abound in France. Members, naturally, are in the know — they have “confidential” information, in that sense. But everyone else, unfortunately, is still in the dark. And so, the sports remain mostly hidden — in plain sight.
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)